Bespoke vs COTS Software in Government

Progressive Ministries and Department are investing an increasing amount in IT systems to automate and simplify business processes. The decision to invest in Bespoke vs COTS Software in Government is vast, with imagination and budget the only boundaries.

Most of the time, the decision of Bespoke Vs COTS is left to the in-house IT team (usually NIC or similar agencies) or to outsourced vendor. And the Ministry officials role in the development of IT system is limited to penning down their requirements from IT systems (Functional Requirement Specifications). This has a potential disadvantage to the Ministry / Department because the decision to buy a ready-made solution or to have software specifically developed raises a number of issues that must be considered and not left to the discretion of in-house team or Vendor.

Bespoke Vs COTS in Government
Bespoke Vs COTS in Government

What is Bespoke Software

Ground-Up Development. When I say ‘bespoke’ I am referring to the complete, ground-up development of a system. This may, however, use some ‘productised’ components for specific functionality, such as, a reporting component, or some advanced controls for the user interface.

The beauty of bespoke systems is that they are tailored to the exact requirements of the Ministry / Department allowing the software to fully integrate, helping to meet key business aims and rules of the Government. Bespoke Software applications are written to meet specific and unique requirements. In this way, it offers many advantages over standard, off-the-shelf software as it can be tailored to fit in exactly with the way that Government or organisation wishes to operate.

Secondly, the Bespoke Software can be integrated with other software that the Ministry uses, thus to give with a fully joined up solution across the organisation.

More flexible. A bespoke software system can evolve over time to match your changing requirements.

No per-user fees. If Government owns the software, it doesn’t have to pay extra per-user fees as the work in the Ministry grows.

Not tied in. The government owns the intellectual property, so is not tied to a specific vendor that could potentially disappear at any time.

The real challenge for Government Officers today that lies ahead is how to combine Bespoke vs COTS Software in Government to capitalize on the strengths of each whilst eliminating the weaknesses of both.

What is COTS Software

By a COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) product, I mean a system which is Off-the-shelf software that is ready-made and available to lots of people. You usually pay a license fee to use it. COTS already exists and delivers a common set of functions, usually for a particular business domain, with the ability to be customised, configured or extended to suit each client. For example, many companies use SalesForce for customer relationship management or Xero for accounting or better e.g. Microsoft Office.. Source


  • Cheaper. The development costs are spread across many of users, so you pay much less than it would cost to build the same software from scratch.
  • Immediate availability. The development work has already been done, so all you need to do is set up the software and start using it.
  • Lower training costs. If it is a commonly used package, users and I.T. staff may already be familiar with it, saving on learning time and training costs. Or, there may be pre-existing training materials and courses that you can leverage.
  • Community support. If the software is popular, there may be books, articles, forums and online communities offering support and advice to help you learn or resolve any issues.
  • More functionality. Off-the-shelf software often has more functionality, because the developers try to meet the requirements of as many users as possible. (There may even be functionality you didn’t realise you need!)
  • Upgrades. The vendor will continue to develop the software, so you will likely get upgrades for free or at a reduced cost because in the bespoke software you don’t get anything new unless you pay for it to be built. Source

I have seen in-house software being used as COTS by various Ministries. The one is eOffice. Those Officers who have used eOffice knows fully well what is COTS in operation. There is eOffice team at Shastri park NIC who do the development centrally, and whichever Ministry desire to use it, get the instance installed and ready for configuration. There are standard manuals, common support desk and bug fixing readily available. Thus the cost of development and implementation is very less, it is immediately available, the training cost is lower, there is full support and NIC constantly upgrades the software.

Bespoke Vs COTS in Government
Bespoke Vs COTS in Government

More article of interest: 10 must have productivity apps for the Government Officers

Benefits of Bespoke Coding in Government

Why there is a strong reliance on bespoke coding in Government.

  1. Initial Cost of Investment: The cost of bespoke software can be higher than off-the-shelf solutions. Individually crafted software often needs teams comprising of dozens of people each bringing particular skills such as analysts, programmers, hardware and software specialists and technical writers.The time and staffing requirements needed to create and keep up a bespoke system quickly adds-up. Government is not a Start-Up with a limited budget and , generally, there is little concern for initial upfront investment. Therefore, there is not even a debate of bespoke vs COTS in terms of cost.
  2. Luckily customers requiring support for their off-the-shelf system have the peace of mind of knowing that the software is tried and tested, and support is readily available.
  3. A heavily customised implementation of a product will be harder to upgrade when a new version of the core product is released; support will be likely to be provided for the core product only, meaning that your customizations will effectively be unsupported; and your ability to influence the functionality of the product will be lessened once the vendor knows you are tied in.

But why Bespoke like a mirage is failing

In an ideal world every Ministry would have bespoke software were it not for three important preventative factors:

Cost, Time and Manpower

Firstly, the cost of bespoke software can be much higher than off-the-shelf solutions. Individually crafted software often needs teams comprising of dozens of people each bringing particular skills such as analysts, programmers, hardware and software specialists and technical writers. And we all know how hard is to get the good specialised resources in Government. Why?

  1. The Government do not have IT Positions that are permanent in nature. Many attempts have been made, but it’s not there.
  2. Government do not have in-house IT Team to recruit who could find the best-suited resource. Most of the outsourced programmers are hired on the basis of interview only.
  3. The Government can’t do head hunting by identifying a resource and directly taking them onboard. Linkedin hiring is rare. The primary reason is the GFR 2017 which enforces fair and transparent process of hiring resources for the public purpose, preferably through L1 tender. But then that has a pitfall.
  4. The Government cannot meet the salary structure which is expected by the specialised resources.
  5. Government cannot provide all technical hardware in terms of computers and IT systems that are generally needed for the good software development
  6. There are multiple commands to govern the IT manpower, and often the Officers gets transferred without appropriate knowledge transfer.
  7. There is no dedicated and structured SOP for Human Resource Management in Government for outsourced resources. There is establishment / Personnel branch in the Ministry which governs outsourced resources which is fairly inadequate to deal with IT resources.
  8. And finally, there are few IT Managers & Strategic Resources within the Government to put the IT system and team to work. Most of the Officers have administrative background wherein they have worked with large generalist structure and not on specialised IT field. Therefore, the IT software administration is the all-together different ball game which is new and alien in General Administration.

The time and staffing requirements needed to create and support a bespoke system quickly adds up.

Matching the Requirement

Secondly, the bespoke software can only match the requirements of the Ministry to the extent that the Officers can define them and the developer can understand them. If the officer does not have a clear strategic plan for the business operations, long-term IT plans that support the business requirement are difficult to determine.

The finished product is unlikely to have the capacity to evolve with the Government, with errors and misunderstandings at the early stages of development leading to spiralling costs and delayed delivery.

Compatibility of Softwares with others

Thirdly, the issue of compatibility can cause problems. If the software is not compatible with the existing systems, operational difficulties are likely to arise. We see this often in the Government Ministries. Each Division of the Ministry will develop its own application and own website. When I was in Rural Development, there was a website with static content which was called as Ministry Site. But then we had these many websites:

All these are independent, bespoke websites developed and maintained by NIC and other developers. They generally don’t talk to each other, have their own ecosystem and are at various stages of maturity and development. Legacy systems may not have been designed with integration in mind and therefore the ability to transfer data between systems may have a major impact on the inter-operation of systems. Similarly, if the software is not compatible with the systems of others, it may cause problems to the overall functioning of the Government and is frequently the case.

Software Codes Availability

If you don’t own the source code you are dangerously exposed and wholly dependent on the developer if things go wrong in the future, or the software needs updating. To avoid this, always choose a software house that will give you the source code on completion of the project. In COTS solution, you know from the beginning that you will not have the codes, therefore you can develop the system which is non-critical and do not need any holding of codes. But in case of Bespoke coding each code is custom written and if the programmer goes away, the ownership is lost.

Thus, the biggest advantage of Bespoke Software Development in Government is also its biggest failings.

Why we must seriously consider COTS

Generally speaking, off-the-shelf systems are produced to meet the perceived needs of a particular market or sector. They have, in effect, a one size fits all set of generic features and, for more complex applications, customization facilities.

As a rule, they are easy to install and easy to use. It is important to remember that off-the-shelf solutions are bred from the best components of various software systems, often beginning life as a bespoke package designed for a specific client – so does this mean that off-the-shelf provides users with the best of both worlds?

Luckily customers requiring support for their off-the-shelf system have the peace of mind of knowing that the software is tried and tested, and support is readily available.

An alternative way to use the more expensive off-the-shelf products is through a managed services provider. They purchase the products and allow clients to use them as part of a managed services contract, which results in a much more cost-effective solution. Many Governments have opted for this model. Although the Government does not then have ownership and management rights, the software is made affordable, and the problem of it becoming outdated and even obsolete is eliminated.

Unless the Ministry has some amazingly unique scenario (that would not have been picked up by the thousands of off the shelf solutions) many Government can buy a suitable off-the-shelf solution that is the result of hundreds of thousands of man-hours of development and fine-tuning.

Hybrid Mode for Government

The Pareto 80:20 principle can be applied to this scenario. Having 80 percent of the application already available enables the remaining 20 percent to be configured specifically to Government requirements. This type of environment is especially suited to workflow or process driven requirements, where the engine and administration aspects of the application are already available and the 20 percent bespoke configuration allows rule sets and process specific to the Government to be easily implemented.

Conclusion on Bespoke vs COTS Software in Government

The solution lies with the careful selection at the cutting edge level, that is Joint Secretary / Director level in the Government itself. The decision to choose Bespoke Vs COTS should not be to outsource to either NIC or Vendor. This requires a fine knowledge of the COTS solutions available for various needs of Government. For example, a Ministry trying to carry out Grievance Redressal Mechanism are better suited to go for COTS solution. The requirements are pretty basic and future customisations are rare. The application for Grievance Redressal is very standard and from SAAS model to hosted model all types of applications are available. From $30 per month for Freshdesk to costly Software from Oracle / Microsoft all can deliver the same level of functionality that is needed for any Government Organisation. The market in this segment is evolving and innovative features are added very often, which the Government should take benefit of.

In case of highly customised need such as GSTN, MGNREGA Wage payment, the bespoke software holds the best option.

The real challenge for Government Officers today that lies ahead is how to combine Bespoke vs COTS Software in Government to capitalize on the strengths of each whilst eliminating the weaknesses of both.

The above are my views based on individual experience. I understand there is no one-right-way, so views are welcome.

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Also published on Medium.

One thought on “Bespoke vs COTS Software in Government

  1. I have honestly never read such overwhelmingly good content like this. I agree with your points and your ideas. This info is really great. Thanks.

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